Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment

Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment

Swedish provides advanced treatment for all kinds of vision problems — including diabetic retinopathy. Our surgical and laser-treatment facilities are fully equipped. And our highly skilled ophthalmic surgeons, nurses and technicians bring a high level of experience and teamwork to every surgical procedure.


Appointments & Referrals

Find an ophthalmologist

To schedule a routine eye exam, or consult with a physician about surgery, contact a Swedish ophthalmologist.


About diabetic retinopathy

What is diabetic retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina — the light-sensing membrane that lines the back of the eye. These damaged blood vessels may leak fluid or blood and develop fragile new vessels and scar tissue. The result is blurry, distorted vision and sometimes even blindness.

What causes diabetic retinopathy?
It is a complication of diabetes. Over time, diabetes weakens blood vessels all over the body, including those in the eyes. Additionally, when diabetes is combined with pregnancy, high blood pressure or smoking, retinopathy may worsen. People with untreated diabetes are said to be 25 times more at risk for blindness than the general population. Diabetic retinopathy has become the leading cause of new blindness among adults in the United States.

Who gets diabetic retinopathy?
The longer a person has diabetes, the greater their risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. About 80 percent of the people who have had diabetes for at least 15 years have some blood-vessel damage to their retinas. People with Type 1 (or juvenile) diabetes are more likely to develop diabetic retinopathy at a younger age.

Is treatment necessary?
Yes. Diabetic retinopathy can cause a permanent reduction in vision and even blindness. But if you have diabetes, it's important to know that today, with improved methods of diagnosis and treatment, only a small percentage of people who develop diabetic retinopathy have serious vision problems.

What are the treatment options?
If you are diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, your ophthalmologist will consider your age, medical history, lifestyle and the degree of damage to the retina before recommending a treatment. In many cases, treatment is not necessary, but you will need to continue having regular exams. In other cases, your ophthalmologist may recommend laser treatment, cryotherapy (freezing) or other surgery to stop bleeding, slow new vessel growth and preserve vision.

What's involved in laser treatment?
During this procedure (focal photocoagulation), your ophthalmologist will focus a powerful laser beam on the damaged central retina to seal leaking blood vessels and clear swelling. If there is abnormal blood-vessel growth, the laser-beam bursts will be scattered throughout the side areas of the retina. (This is called panretinal photocoagulation.) The small laser scars caused by this process reduce the abnormal blood-vessel growth. Both of these procedures may be performed on an outpatient basis and require no surgical incision.

What's involved in cryotherapy?
If the vitreous (the clear, gel-like substance that fills the eye) is clouded by blood, laser surgery cannot be used until the blood settles or clears. In this case, cryotherapy (freezing of the retina) may help shrink the abnormal blood vessels.

What's involved in surgery?
The surgical procedure used to treat diabetic retinopathy in its advanced stages is called a vitrectomy. During this procedure, your ophthalmologist will use a high-powered microscope and delicate surgical instruments to remove the blood-filled vitreous and replace it with a clear solution. Laser treatment and removal of scar tissue may also be necessary. General or local anesthesia may be used.

How safe is treatment?
There are risks and possible complications with any surgery. With laser surgery, there is a remote chance that a healthy retina might be destroyed, causing vision loss. Laser treatment may also cause bleeding or an unusually large scar. Fortunately, these complications are rare.

With a vitrectomy surgery, complications may occur, but they are infrequent, and the majority are treatable. They include infection, retinal detachment, retinal tears, cataract formation, glaucoma, bleeding and the development of scar tissue. Because 70 percent of vitrectomy patients have improved sight after surgery, the benefits of this surgery often outweigh the risks.

How long can I expect the surgery to last?
Depending on the extent of the problem, laser surgery or cryotherapy may take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more; a vitrectomy may take one to several hours.

Will treatment fully restore vision?
Probably not. Sometimes small amounts of visual improvement occur, and occasionally patients see a great deal of improvement. Each eye is different. Before surgery, your doctor will discuss with you your chances for improved eyesight.

How much discomfort should I expect right after surgery and in the days to follow?
Patients may experience some discomfort with laser surgery and cryotherapy. With vitrectomy surgery, some slight pain and nausea may occur, but it's usually temporary. In any case, your doctor will prescribe medication to control pain if necessary.

What happens after surgery/treatment?
Each treatment is done as an outpatient procedure. After surgery, you'll most likely go home after a short stay in the recovery area of the Swedish Eye Center. If you had laser surgery or cryotherapy, you should be able to resume normal activities within days.

If you had a vitrectomy, you should not engage in strenuous activity or exercise for about a week after surgery. However, you can resume normal activity soon after treatment. You can expect to return to work within two weeks.

Will I need any follow-up visits?
Your ophthalmologist will probably want to see you for a postoperative visit. If your procedure was a vitrectomy, the appointment will probably be scheduled for the following day. Follow-up visits for laser surgery and cryotherapy are typically scheduled two to eight weeks after surgery. Regular checkups will be scheduled to monitor your healing.

What will be different after surgery?
Many of the people who have undergone eye surgery report an improved outlook on life, as well as improved vision.